VOL. 123 | NO. 73 | Monday, April 14, 2008
Charter Commission Explores Old Ideas
By Bill Dries
Members of the Memphis Charter Commission are about to begin debating some of the most basic questions about how city government functions.
The group is drafting charter amendments to go to Memphis voters on the November ballot.
Proposals to clarify the powers of the mayor and of the council and to allow the council to have a vote in contracts made by the mayor are to be discussed and voted on at the group's April 24 meeting. Both ideas were floated last year by outgoing City Council chairman Tom Marshall.
Still to come, probably in May, is a discussion of a proposal by 2007 mayoral candidate and former City Council member Carol Chumney to require a special election within two months of the resignation of the mayor.
The Charter Commission's brief discussion last week focused on Chumney and Marshall.
"He's an architect," Charter Commissioner and current City Council member Janis Fullilove said as Charter Commission Chairman Myron Lowery asked if Marshall should be invited to speak at next week's public meeting.
"That's drawing a fine line," Lowery replied, citing Marshall's 20-year tenure on the council before deciding not to run for re-election last year.
Most of the charter commissioners decided Marshall should be invited to make his point.
Brown said Marshall "has an agenda" that includes diluting the powers of the city mayor to make city government more like Shelby County government.
"Shelby County is altogether different. He's really a weak mayor," Brown said as he emphasized he was talking about the office and not county Mayor A C Wharton Jr. personally. "In most areas he would not even be called a mayor. ... This could change the whole structure of our city government to mirror that of county government."
During his tenure as council chairman last year, Marshall disputed the traditional view that the city charter gives the mayor the sole authority to make and carry out contracts. It's a power all four mayors under the 40-year-old mayor-council form of government have emphasized and insisted is beyond question. Marshall believes the charter is vague on the precise point.
The wording of the charter on the point is:
"The mayor shall make all contracts authorized by the city council, unless otherwise ordered, and shall supervise their execution."
Chumney's proposal to have a special election for mayor two months after a mayor resigns was made before Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton floated the idea of resigning last month and then heavily qualified it. But it was made after Chumney finished second to Herenton in the 2007 mayor's race.
She said at the time that it was prompted by rumors that Herenton did not intend to serve the full four-year term. She referred to the rumors as potential "skullduggery."
Brown said last week he didn't care for Chumney's reasoning. But he agreed the issue should be explored.
"It is an issue that begs for clarity," Brown said. "A good idea may get tainted because of how it was presented or how it comes before us. ... I think we need to do something about it."
The City Charter now provides that the City Council chairman becomes mayor immediately after such a resignation and serves for 20 days during which the council can appoint an interim mayor to serve until the next municipal election.
If the council doesn't appoint someone within those 20 days, the city's chief administrative officer becomes interim mayor until the council acts or until the next municipal election.